Activity of Choice: Your Presence

whirlwind2“We’re so busy with activities.”

Parents come to me with pressing child problems in busy family lives.  These problems occur alongside basketball, swimming or soccer practice, gymnastics, dance or piano lessons.  Or speech, occupational therapy, music therapy, pediatric specialists.  Life is busy!  And every activity is intended to enrich development,  release energy, or develop lagging skills.

But many parents grimace as their eyes dart across cell phones calendars … looking for even one free day to schedule the therapy they’re seeking from me.  Truly, I do understand, kids need certain appointments, even if they are piling up.  Seems they need so many things. But in all those appointments, what might they NOT be getting?

Kids are missing YOU.

Ironically, one of the most therapeutic activities is 1:1 parent-child time. Honestly, I prescribe it a lot.  Parents are surprised, expecting a fancier initial treatment. But quality parent-child time heals so much. It’s often the most productive and efficient starting point.  Recently, a devoted mother found herself in tears, realizing how hard it was to find 15 minutes a day for one of her kids. “Fifteen minutes,” she winced … “I felt like I spend lots of time with her each day … but not for any quality stretch of time.”

The old school truth, in these new school times, remains the same: Kids need your time, your attention more than anything else. Even if they don’t seem interested. Don’t let Minecraft or the latest phone game fool you.

Ten minutes a day can make a lifetime relationship change.

The most therapeutic thing I can recommend is 10-15 minutes per day talking and playing with your young child.  Not correcting her or reprimanding ~ not reviewing what “better choices” he could have made.  Save those discussions for another time. Just make time for hanging out;  noticing him, noticing her; joining your children in their worlds.

Phones? Nope, not during this time.  We may believe that if parental body is in the same room, facing one’s child, a phone in hand doesn’t matter.  But your child knows you simply aren’t “there.” Hard to put it down? Yes.  But the payoff is priceless. There’s no single breaking news story, Pinterest pin, Snapchat update, click bait or Facebook Marketplace item that’s as important as connecting with your child today.

Some years from now, your grown child will lace fingers with a sweetheart … who will ask, “So, tell me about your Mom; what was your Dad like?” All your parenting years moments will fuse and condense into a 2-to-5-word perception.  He or she was “always on the phone” or “always working,” “kinda distant,” “usually complaining…”  “not really around” … What do you want your child’s 5 words to be? Make 10 minutes a day and shape them.

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Princesses & Parenting

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Got some little princesses in your life? I see a lot of them in my office, sometimes in full regalia. Adorable pixies, reveling in the allure and entitlement that girly-royalty seems to bestow. Sometimes I see boys in these costumes — in pictures shown to me furtively on iPhones by parents who think I “ought to see.”

TIME.com published a recent article based on a study published in the journal Child Development, asking “Are Disney Princesses Hurting Your Daughter’s Self Esteem?” So, I got to thinking about it … and found myself reflecting far beyond ballgowns and slippers. Boys as well as girls came to mind, including those routinely mistaken for the opposite sex in the grocery store.

Princess thought took me quickly into the realm of tolerance and acceptance of variation from gender norms — tolerance within some children toward themselves, and tolerance in other kids’ thoughts about and actions toward their peers.  So, first the princess thoughts.

As a child psychologist, I find no inherent harm in a Disney princess. It’s the thinking that young kids take away from such movies and paraphernalia that matters. And that’s where parent-child conversations really count.  I believe parent talks can mitigate the effects of media and marketing.

The study by Sarah M. Coyne and colleagues revealed that young children, average age 5 years, who have higher involvement with Disney princesses showed more female gender-stereotypical play references a year later. Studies are important attempts to get an aerial view of things ~ but they cannot capture and control for every other non-measured element in a child’s daily life.  We don’t know how much parent-child conversation occurred about princess-ness.  Which could make a difference.

Talk, talk, talk to your girls about princesses and girly things.  “What do you like about Ariel?” Keep it light but get real ~ about what really matters in life.  Elicit your child’s view of the prosocial, personal, and physical attributes of these slim-waisted princesses. “Does she show kindness and help others?” “How confident or independent does she seem?” “What about her body – do any ladies you know look like that?”  And by the way, does the marketing doll even resemble the movie character? Or is it an overly-sexualized version … like the original Merida doll from Brave, recalled after a petition launched by Twitter@AMightyGirl?

Beyond the princess issue lies one of deeper and greater significance to me as a child psychologist.  Tolerance and compassion for differentness is desperately needed in the societal and political times in which we live. Perhaps more desperately than at any time in my personal and professional memory. 

Difference is everywhere. My office is peppered with gender non-conforming kids —  those whose presentation and behavior does not follow stereotypes about how they “should” look or act based on the sex they were assigned at birth.  I meet girls who so strongly resemble boys in carriage and demeanor that a bare trace of femininity is hard to find; boys who love their My Little Ponies and sisters’ clothes so much, they plead with parents to wear a twirly-skirt and flower hairband to Target.

These children’s parents are seeking help to understand and raise their kids to be happy with themselves, in whatever gender identity or sexual orientation that turns out to be — in a world lacking adequate tolerance for departure from gender stereotypes.  My office is also visited by two-mommy and two-daddy families fighting uphill battles in the outside world, seeking the safe haven of my care to resolve everyday parenting quandaries.

So, teach tolerance.  For mental health in every child’s heart, home, school, community and the world. Even if you are parent for whom such topics leave you uneasy, you can still teach your child to be neutral or kind.  Teaching Tolerance is a magazine for educator from  Tolerance.org with activities that build understanding across all kinds of difference in the school classroom and community. It is a treasure trove. 

Any adult-child conversation that promote flexible, tolerant thinking about gender stereotypes and gender non-conformity is good for every child’s self-esteem and for compassionate social development.  

Tolerance talks support children who are discovering how they feel within themselves, despite reactions from those around them. Tolerance talks help kids of typical gender expression accept others – remain neutral, discourage hurtfulness or be supportive.  

Compassion for others is good for every child’s development, a key skill for becoming a constructive citizen of the world, a healthy participant in loving relationships, and person with inner peace.  I never suspected Walt Disney was going to inspire such thoughts — but he sure did.

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For parents wanting some support for talking about the media a tolerance, take a look at: Tolerance.org   (Twitter@tolerance_org), amightygirl.com (Twitter@AMightyGirl), CommonSenseMedia.org (Twitter@commonsense) and genderspectrum.org (Twitter@GenderSpectrum).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


What Every Parent Wants

 

Parents want lots of things for their kids.

But when they call me, there is astounding similarity in what they want. Parents arrive, hope in hand. They sit on my couch and describe children of different ages, issues, gender, and problem settings. Yet every parent wants the same thing. Improbable, but true.  How can this be?

 

paris girls chalk

 

CONNECT

Parents yearn for their young children to connect better —  with them at home, and with others outside the home.  They pray for smoother interactions between their child and other kids, between their child and other adults.  They wish their child could …

Get through a play date without a knock down/drag out, friend-goes-home-early;

Feel brave enough to say hello on the playground;

Handle teacher correction without feeling she’s “mean;”

Be able to tell a teacher what one feels and needs;

Have as many loving moments at home as challenging ones;

Enjoy mutually satisfying parent-child interactions.

COPE

What else do they want? Without exception, every parent who comes to my office wants “coping skills for my child.” After many years, I noticed this word mentioned in EVERY intake — not just many or most. Parents yearn for their child to acquire skills that can be remembered, applied and activated in troubling times. For their children to learn to handle a situation without aggression, withdrawal, meltdown, a freak out, or “bad choices.”

THRIVE

My new patient paperwork concludes with this question:

“Say you run into someone six months from now, someone who knows your family well but hasn’t seen you in a while. Somehow, things have gotten better. What would you like to be able to say?”

In the hopeful answers to this question, the same word keeps cropping up: THRIVE. “He is just thriving” or “She’s thriving now in every way …” Parents want their child to feel success, joy, light, achievement and resilient self-esteem – to thrive on every level of development.

So, parents want their children to connect and cope better, so ultimately they can thrive.  Over my 20 years as a child psychologist, I see those aspirations as intertwined. But perhaps not as you’d expect.

 

With preschool & primary graders,

child coping is a joint venture between adult & child.

They learn and practice these skills with YOU

and apply them in the world.

 

Wait … don’t kids learn to cope in the therapy room?

They learn it in every room. Young children are developing their “coping systems” – a complex blend of neurological, physiological and emotional and social mechanisms for reacting and responding to challenge. Part temperament and genetics, part modeling, part impulse control, part emotional regulation. A tall order for the young ones I see.   Very hard to do alone.  We adults actually help or hinder children’s coping through our interactions with them.

Adult-child interactions literally build kids’ brains, fortifying the neural groundwork for either calm, confident problem solving or alarmist, defensive/offensive or escapist problem solving.  What’s the difference? Asking for help versus throwing a chair; greeting an unfamiliar child versus hiding behind your leg; expressing the thought “This is too hard” versus running out of the classroom.

 

To help children connect, cope & thrive,

I teach adults to facilitate their child’s coping

through brain-building interactions styles.

 

At some point in the process of child therapy  most parents mention to me, “It kind of seems like you’re training us …”   Down the road, many parents also share a common disclosure, admitting somewhat sheepishly but with deep pride: “I noticed he really started to change when I started to change. I had no idea ….”

Child therapy is composed of direct child intervention AND parent guidance.   Parent workshops go straight to parent guidance.   Workshops pump parents full of information that lower the temperature of child problems.

For instance, parents learn why yelling never works.  We think the louder we yell, the more kids will remember the lesson next time. Right? Wrong. Yelling activates the threat center in the limbic system in the brain, taking blood and oxygen away from the thinking cortex. Yelling literally incapacitates the child’s cortex from problem solving. Thinking goes off line. Good coping doesn’t get rolling like that.

You can learn to help your child Connect, Cope & Thrive via child therapy or a parent workshop.  Or, you try to apply these few concepts and see if things improve:

Child coping starts at home in every interaction you share.

Your own calm coping is the best model for your child’s coping.

If your child’s “upset elevator” goes up, keep yours down.

 

Promote your child’s coping through calm connection that models the cool you want them to achieve. Remember, you are building his or her brain in these early years.  Parents are the most important part of child therapy.

 

Dr. Beth’s Parent Workshops & Saturday Seminars resume September 2014 including:  Savvy Solutions for Your Challenging Young Child; You & Your Anxious Child; and The Child-Sight Model: Change Your View and What You Think, Say and Do. Visit DrBethKids.com for details. 
 
Photo credit: by Beth Onufrak

What’s Wrong with “Wh” Questions? 5 Things and The 5-Word Fix

 

Your child is falling apart. Another volcanic meltdown, drowning in a tsunami of tears, siren-like screams. If you knew what specifically was wrong, you’d know what specifically could help. So you resort to the strategy that helps you the most in adult life:  specific questions.

what-why-how2What are you upset about?
What happened?
When did this happen?
Where were you?
Why are you so upset?
How did this happen?

Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?
Wh-wh-wh …

It truly is unfair that the style of inquiry that helps us function in the adult world incapacitates us when trying to help a young child.  Specific questions can even prolong and impede the process, while emotions spiral further out of control like a tornado on the plains.   Why? (oops!)

In 20 years of being a child psychologist, and the years of training before, I learned the cardinal lesson: “Wh” questions shut a child up faster then you can say ice cream sandwich.

 “Wh” questions can be unhelpful, even anti-helpful, because they:
    1. Shut down a child’s own narration and conception of the problem
    2. Block a child’s sharing of the salient details to him
    3. Pigeonhole a child’s thinking into your categories of thought
    4. Build a child’s frustration with us adults
    5. Make a child more upset from the communication gap

May I suggest an alternative ~ my 5-word Fix: “Tell me all about it.” It may sound similar to asking …  but this approach to inquiry is completely different. How so?

Consider the last time your computer displayed a cryptic, terrifying error message before going blank, toying with your life. In consultation with the  IT person, it may be very hard for you to explain the problem.  The IT person might ask you specific “wh” questions, such as: What did the error message say?  What were you doing right before this happened? What gobbledygook thingy is your thingamajig?

But you’re upset and you don’t have computer language. It may be doggone difficult to answer those “wh” questions. You might even grow more frustrated in this process. You might wish the IT person would simply say, “Tell me all about it.”  At that point, you could begin with the language you have to describe the problem at the level you are capable of.

When a child hears “Tell me all about it,”  it feels like “Just give it to me, however it’s going through your head right now, with whatever words you got … and I will just listen.”

“Tell me all about it” also opens up your child to tell you a detail you’d NEVER have asked for.  Because you couldn’t have thought of that.  Because you’re weren’t there … and you’re an adult.

haystack
Relying on “wh” questions in a meltdown is like trying to find a specific needle in your child’s haystack.  It’s like asking, repeatedly:   Is this the needle? Is this the needle?  Is THIS the needle? You would get infinitely farther, infinitely faster by just saying “Tell me about this haystack you got here.”

Naturally, you have to ask “wh” questions at some point. Probably several, to get the clarity you need. But starting out with nine “wh” questions will create more problems than progress.  “Tell me all about it” may be the most productive start.

You can add “I’m so sorry you’re so upset.”  When you’re lost, interject, “Help me understand; tell me some more about this, honey.” (Hint:  forget about solving this problem right now; her brain needs empathy too cool the limbic system down.) 

“Wh” questions are like putting your hand on a specific door knob and asking, “Is it this door?” Saying, “Tell me all about it” opens doors you didn’t even know were there.  Try it and you will see.

Parent Dreams … Olympic or Otherwise

OlympicMoms+Logo+3This post is part of the #OlympicMoms #OlympicDads campaign started by Dr. Lynne Kenney & friends to support & inspire parents around the globe!  

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Does it happen to you every few years?

skating bitstrip3

The Olympics return …

You find yourself watching your favorite event and feel a yearning within …

A deep wish, a poignant pull, an unfulfilled dream. Whether you actually wanted to be an Olympian or not doesn’t matter. Simply watching the athletes can stir memories of ANY dreams you did not pursue.

Activities quit, efforts abandoned, wishes that never made it to a To Do list …

So then …with your kids nestled under your arm, what do you do? Keep your thoughts to yourself, or share them?

In this Olympic season, I suggest you share them.

From childhood through your teens into adulthood, countless dreams have drifted across your mind and spirit. Adventures you’ve considered and tabled, visions you’ve pursued and prospered by. You have signed up and succeeded, envisioned and ventured, bailed before you failed, or left a dream lie dormant.

Your children could benefit from hearing about your dreams, the whats and whys, and what you think about them today.

Did you want to be a skier, a dancer, a skater, a ballplayer? A speaker, an inventor, an author, a cook? Did you sign up, or not sign up? Did you try and fail? Did you stay discouraged or try again? Were you glad you persisted, or more glad you kept searching elsewhere for your genuine talent? Did someone believe in you when you didn’t? Do you have regrets? How do you feel about your past coping with a challenge — the risky challenge of pursuing something you dearly want, despite the struggle and strain?

My core clinical belief is that child coping is a joint venture between adult and child — no matter who that adult is — at the moment of trial and tribulation. Hearing how you have struggled can deepen your parent-child relationship. And nourish your children’s coping resources for dreams of the now and dreams of the future.

Share your “Olympic” thoughts with your children to connect with them and build their resilience to cope.  Sharing your coping tales can provide a realistic model of the many shades of color between success & failure. Resilience … this is how it happens.

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Learn more about the #OlympicMoms #OlympicDads campaign by clicking HERE